Vox

Vox Telecom Windows App

We recently switched from Afrihost “Business” Uncapped to Vox Telecom capped so that we could do cool things like actually load websites and stuff. However monitoring cap from their website is quite a pain

So I made a Windows Universal app in a few evenings. It’s been in the store for a couple weeks now and it seems to be working well for people, so I’m posting here.
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Unity3D Lightmapping on Azure in the clouds

Lightmapping

The Oxford Dictionary defines “lightmapping” as “A process with takes an absolutely ludicrous amount of time“. And if you thought lightmapping in Unity 4 took long, then you’re in for a shock when you try 5.

If you’ve not used Unity before, lightmapping is basically a way to pre-render lighting and shadow data at design-time instead of wasting processing power at run-time. In games, you often get lights (and therefore shadows) that don’t ever move, which leads to the poor CPU having to constantly work out the lighting data every frame, even though it doesn’t need to. The answer is to bake the lighting into a lightmap. That lightmap is just a big image that essentially gets overlaid on your objects and makes it seem like there is lighting in the scene, even though there isn’t.

The problem is that this baking process can take anywhere from a few minutes (for a very small scene) to hours, depending on your scene/level and PC. So I decided to test out if I could do the processing on Azure instead. To do this I used a single reference level and baked it 8 times on each VM/PC I setup. All the settings were the same, and I created a new instance for each one (didn’t just reuse an older installation). Along with just baking, I ran some benchmarks with PassMark PerformanceTest.

 

Hardware

I did all the tests on the following machines:

Azure A10: 8 Core Xeon E5-2670, 56 GB RAM.
Azure A11: 16 Core Xeon E5-2670, 112 GB RAM.
Azure G3: 8 Core Xeon E5-2698B v3, 112 GB RAM.
Azure G5: 32 Core Xeon E5-2698B v3, 448 GB RAM.
Surface Pro 3: i7 4650U, 8 GB RAM (256 GB storage model).
Other PC: i7 4770K, 16 GB RAM, 256 GB OCZ Vertex 4 SSD (this is my office machine).

All tests were done with Windows 8.1, Unity 5.0.1f1 and PassMark V8 build 1047.

This is what a 16 Core A11 looks like while lightmapping:A11

And a 32 Core G5:
G5

Summary

Before showing some charts, let me summarize my observations (summaries go at the beginning right?). These Azure machines can be really, really powerful, but also really, really expensive. If you’re paying for this sort of hardware, you want to use it all. For the particular use of lightmapping it simply isn’t worth the cost. You’ve got tons of RAM and storage which Unity never touches, plus top-grade hardware at every point in the system.
If all you want to do is bake some lights, and time isn’t a major concern, just build a fast PC out of a bunch of dodgy parts – you simply don’t need the fancy stuff that Azure provides.
What I’d really like is for Azure to add a custom config where I can specify that I want lots of CPU power, but hardly any RAM or HDD space.

 

Results

Don’t read too much into these values. Although I ran every test multiple times, ensured I was getting consistent results, and did everything I could to test properly, something might have gone wrong without me realizing it.

All of the standard benchmark scores (CPU, Memory, Disk) are higher is better.

Something that interested me with the CPU tests was that the G3 was “slower” than the A10. I did re-run the test a few times to make sure.

cpu

 

Once again, the G3 is slightly below even the A machines here. I’m not sure why, and I would have assumed that all the Azure results would roughly align (which they sort of do besides the G3).

memory

 

For some reason, even though all these Azure machines have SSD’s, they seem to be pretty throttled. The G3 consistently scored WAY higher than anything else. Maybe it was just a glitch in the matrix, and Azure forgot to throttle my G3 instance. Or maybe they were throttling all my others too much. Either way, the slow HDD speed was noticeable. It took a long time to install and unzip stuff, and the CPUs definitely weren’t the issue.

disk

 

The time difference between my PC and the G5 is roughly 15 minutes, which makes the G5 double the speed. 15 (or 30) minutes might not seem like a lot, but consider that this was a small reference level. Then also take into account that a game could easily have 30 levels. On my machine that is 15 hours, and doesn’t take into account that you’ll need to bake each level lots of times. And while it is baking the PC is often not useable at all.

bakingmins

 

This may or may not actually be a useful chart. Either way, it interested me because it portrays the scenario of buying/renting a dedicated machine that does nothing but bake lighting all day.
Fun fact: If you were buying all this hardware, you could buy about 18 of the CPUs in my machine for the same price as the ones in the G5, even though it only bakes double the speed. Obviously, this is just one very specific application which almost definitely doesn’t totally use the power of the G5.

bakespermonth

 

Finally, cost. I couldn’t include my PC or SP3 because I have no “per hour” dollar value for them.
The A10 is clearly the best value per bake but assumes that time doesn’t matter.

costperbake

 

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WeatherSA for Windows Phone

It’s that exciting time again when we get to launch another app! This time it is the official Windows Phone app for AfricaWeather:

We currently service over 1.4 million Africans via our website and mobile applications. One of the most unique features is our ability to track storms in real time, as well as provide consumers with an hour’s forewarning of when the storm will hit their suburb. We interpret weather information and make it relevant to your lifestyle. You are able to customise notifications to suite your lifestyle from daily forecasts, storm warnings, news, through to telling you the best time of day to hit the beach or go for a cycle.

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bidorbuy for Windows Phone

After tons of design, development, and testing (and far too many energy drinks), we’ve just published the official bidorbuy app for Windows Phone 8!

Bidorbuy is Africa’s Largest Online Marketplace serving over 1 million users a month, but you likely already knew that.
Over the past few months I’ve been working with their team to build a fully-featured, first class application for Windows Phone that embraces the Windows Phone design style, while adding its own unique brand.

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Cortana as a home-automation assistant

Microsoft’s brand new personal assistant, Cortana, is getting a lot of people excited at the moment. Even though it is in beta, I’ve found it surprisingly good, and already use it for practical reasons daily.

So why not take it a bit further? What about letting her control my lights – because, yes, giving an AI access to deadly electricity is a great idea (no, really, it is).

This uses a Netduino, Bluetooth module, and a normal 240v desk-lamp.

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Microsoft YouthSpark

The Microsoft YouthSpark day was held at the Durban University of technology today in Durban, South Africa.

In the keynote I got to demonstrate a bunch of cool things that Windows Phones can do.
One of the things I showed was just how easy/quick it was to take a picture, “Tap to Share” it to a different phone, and then share it on Twitter. And yes, I did that by taking a selfie on stage Smile

 

(Side note: see the flash on the left? Pivendren took a photo at exactly the same time!)

 

I also demonstrated my app, TapShoot. It allows you to pair two phones together and remotely take a photo. The scenario I presented was taking a photo with my “wife” (yes, that is a woman in the backdrop image).

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Next, fellow Microsoft MVP, Taylor Gibb, and I presented the app development track. We made a simple app that calculates taxi fares to introduce the students to the Windows Phone platform.

One of the prizes was a Windows Phone. At the end of the session we decided to shuffle the eval-forms and pick a random one to decide the winner.
To make things more interesting I had told the students that the draw was for a Nokia bag. Watch the winners face as he realizes he is actually getting a phone Open-mouthed smile.

Nyaladzi Mpofu from Microsoft was there making sure the whole event went smoothly.

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For any Durban students (or non-students), I run a weekly Windows Phone training session called “Phone Fridays” at the Durban University of Technology (who are kind enough to lend us their PC labs!). Taylor Gibb will also be at these to do talks and assist people. If you’re interested please email piven@errornaik.com with the subject line of “PhoneFridays”. (And yes, it is free)

Update: Here is an article in The Witness newspaper today about the event.

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The Internet of Things with the Azure cloud, Netduino, Windows Phone, and lots of other buzzwords

If you haven’t heard, “the cloud” is kind of a big deal right now. Microsoft Azure is Microsoft’s slice of it  (with 54% of Fortune 500 companies running on Azure today), and is the reason that when you take a photo on your phone it magically appears on your PC (amongst other things). No one understands the cloud, but we know it is powerful Winking smile.

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At BUILD 2014, Microsoft announced their plan for allowing everything from your teddy bear to your traffic light (because people totally have these) to connect to Azure. And yes, this includes connecting up a full sized traffic light…

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